Saturday 12 January 2013

What Does Creativity Do? - a Speculation using Positioning Theory

There's an awful lot of bleating on about creativity these days. "oh, it's really important!", "innovative economies need creativity!", etc, etc. It's a bit like saying sex is important. Well, I guess we talk a lot about that too. But does it get us anywhere? "What, (Sir Ken), are we doing differently because we've talked about creativity so much recently?"

Not a lot, I think. Except that we've given lots of attention (and Knighthoods) to people talking about creativity.  Here's a more sensible (and grounded) talk about creativity from John Cleese - who can at least reflect on his own experiences of being creative. It's an entertaining talk, but he acknowledges most of what he says is "completely useless". The best bit is at the end, when he says:

"now I come to the really important part and that is how to stop your subordinates becoming creative, because that is the real threat! No-one appreciates as I do what trouble creative people are and how they stop decisive hard-nosed bastards like you and me running businesses efficiently!"

This is interesting on a number of levels. First, it really is the most authentic thing that Cleese says in the whole talk: it goes to the heart of the issue. Creativity is political, and those in power often fear creativity as a challenge to their position. For creative subordinates, the only way round this is to come up with creative ideas and then convince the boss that they thought of it. Then something might happen. But otherwise, you stand a good chance of being fired!

But that suggests that creativity DOES SOMETHING.

If we are serious about changing what we do in the light of recognising the importance of creativity, we need to UNDERSTAND WHAT IT DOES!
  • It does something for individuals
  • It does something for organisations within which those individuals operate
  • It often does something for society
  • It often does something for economies

I've been thinking about this in the context of HarrĂ©'s Positioning Theory. Positioning Theory articulates a triadic relation between Normative Positions, Individual Storylines and Speech Acts (or more broadly I guess, agency):

Positions condition the thoughts and ideas of individuals. Those thoughts and ideas take the form of a 'storyline' - the way individuals see the world. From the storyline, agency emerges through speech acts which reproduce and transform the normative situation.

A creative act changes positioning. It might be thought of as a transformative speech act. But what gives rise to it is some kind of transformation in the storyline.

The storyline is the least well elaborated part of HarrĂ©'s theory. But I think thinking about creativity can be useful in this regard.

A creative person becomes aware of absences both in their environment and in themselves. They know that what they think is the result of what they cannot think, and that the absences they are immersed in have a causal bearing on patterns of thinking which might be 'stuck'. What they need to do to think new things is to determine absences so that they are no longer absent and can be directly addessed. A determination of absence changes the constraints of thought.

Monty Python is a superb example of this. So often, Cleese and his colleagues pinpointed absences - the things that constrained everyone's thinking but they couldn't articulate. The "Life of Brian" is full of determined absences.

Absences need not be external. Creative people most usually draw on their inner life, trying to find a reconciliation between inner experience and outer experience. This is a way of reconfiguring the storyline (much link reconciling the 'dilemmas' of Nigel Howard's drama theory which I wrote about yesterday).

The creative actor knows that their acts are potentially dangerous in the political environment within which they operate. This causes them to be subtle, subversive - even devious. But subtlety and subversion pay-off better than outright challenge. The normative situation does gradually change, and the landscape becomes more amenable to the collective determination of absences that the creative people first identified. This is why Ezra Pound says of poets that they are the "antennae of the race".

I may be wrong on this. But I certainly think that understanding the mechanism of the causal efficacy of creativity is more important than trying to understand what creativity is, how can you become creative, etc, etc. We need to understand creativity as political behaviour.

There are creative people amongst us. They do a job for everyone. On the day after the suicide of Aaron Swartz, we must be concerned about protecting the conditions within which they operate.


Scott said...

One part of creativity (perhaps H-Creativity in Boden's model) is deeply concerned with storyline - the creativity is not so much a speech act that affects the storyline but the creation of a new story that repositions everything (and everyone) in a new narrative.

That is a strong political act, and I can think of a great many persecutions that have resulted from dangerous acts of creative storytelling.

So, to promote creativity is to promote change, disruption, and the unknown.

Or, is the "creativity" discussed in current policy not really "creativity" so much as an activity that looks a bit like the process of creativity but more safely compartmentalised?

(A bit like how the "Kissinger Doctrine" of US foreign policy was concerned with spreading something that looked on the surface a bit like liberal democracy, but without any of the irksome political or economic autonomy.)

Scott said...

Hmm, also what happens when creativity becomes something that isn't playful and freeing, but occurs under compulsion - that is it becomes another thing that every employee must be able to perform on demand as a competence?

(Had this thought while watching:


Mark Johnson said...

Ah - yes, the creativity of evil is important. What kind of absences does a mafia boss detect in his victim in order to create a scheme whereby the victim is rendered helpless?

Maybe the mafia boss sees the absences within others that they themselves are afraid of. It's this kind of 'secret knowledge' which leads to the mafia boss being in control, and their victim trusting them more than they trust themselves.

I'm looking at this kind of things because I think it's key to modelling double-binds using ABM. Was thinking about it with regard to the GLODERS project (see

Creativity doesn't have to be good. But it's always political behaviour...

You're right about "creativity" being presented in a sanitised form. Nothing dangerous there - so how can it possibly be creative???

Anonymous said...

I could be off the mark here as I have no idea what positioning theory is but...

Looking at creativity is it not this part of ourselves that allows us to be free and unrestricted?, is it creativity that allows us to express ourselves in different ways in an underlying expression for things we are unable to express in other ways?

Although creativity should be used for expression in what ever way the individual being creative sees fit. It is important that it is not restricted, that it is playful otherwise if it is constrained it is no longer true creativity as it is influenced by other factors.

Sadly a lot of people are made Sir or Dame etc when sometimes you have to ask yourself do they really deserve to be called that? Dont miss-understand me John Cleese is one of my comedy heros and does deserve recognition along with his collegues for the entertainment and laughter he has brought to people. Laughter in itself just like creativity can bring positivity as long as its in a good context.

Mark Johnson said...

I think that the first thing that a creative person creates is the freedom for themselves to create and play.

It is remarkable how individuals have managed to do this in the most oppressive situations.